The Catalan capital buzzes with superabundant cultural and culinary delights; the only problem is making enough time for everything
Much of Barcelona’s energy derives, as it does in Hong Kong, from the proximity of the city to the sea on one side and to nature on the other. With a relatively small population of 1.6 million, Barcelona has an abundance of cultural riches, both historic and contemporary, that few other global cities can match. There’s art: Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Architecture: Antoni Gaudí’s imprint is ubiquitous in the city. And food: as consistent as you’ll find anywhere. Oh, and you may have heard of its football club: FC Barcelona, which plays in Europe’s largest football stadium, the Camp Nou, whose supporters roar at every move of the current god of the game, Lionel Messi. Here are some of the best places to eat, visit, shop and stay in the city.
The unique modernist building Casa Amatller
Barcelona is the food capital of Spain. Start by sampling its fare at the renowned 19th-century food market Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, which teems with local ham, cheese, churros, olive oil, tapas (made by the same people for 50 years) and wine, with stalls boasting the best of Catalonia. It’s an unmissable culinary and Instagram paradise. Lovers of Iberian cuisine should try El Nacional, which has four restaurants specialising in different regions.
For a semi-Asian vibe, the Catalan-Canadian chef Jordi Artal has relocated his famous Cinc Sentits and its tasting menus to the Eixample district, with a distinctly Japanese zen-esque aesthetic; there’s also a cool new venue called Clubhaus, a cross-platform space of karaoke, ping-pong, Mexican and Asian street food, and a members-only club and restaurant (US$25 to join). Bao Bao does pan-Asian food and cocktails, while Parco will sate your piscatorial cravings; this latter gem does Barcelona’s best sushi on Passeig de Gracià.
The Marina area teems with seafood restaurants and an impressive aquarium (in fact, Barcelona’s fourth most-visited destination). Pez Vela serves scrumptious paella and wild-caught fish, with inspiring beach and sea views. Xiringuito Escribà, on the waterfront of Bogatell Beach, is a Barcelona institution for seafood, paella and cascades of cava.
Casa Viçens, Antoni Gaudí’s first house in the city
If you crave the selfies of Hong Kong’s Pottinger Street or Graham Street’s walls outside G.O.D, then don’t miss photographer Joan Fontcuberta’s mural The World Begins with Every Kiss. Painted in 2014 for the 300th anniversary of the National Day of Catalonia, the wall is a tribute to the Catalan lives lost during the fall of Barcelona in the War of Spanish Succession. Comprising some 4,000 tiles, which from a distance show two people kissing, the mural has become such a poignant and popular landmark that the government has left it up for good.
The Picasso Museum contains more 4,000 of the artist’s works and is spread across five palaces. Picasso moved to Barcelona as a 14-year-old boy, and the museum traces his development from classically trained painter to cubist pioneer. It’s an education on every level and it’s full of surprises. Similarly, a visit to the Fundació Joan Miró is a must – and don’t miss the intriguing space downstairs, Espai 13, devoted to showcases of experimental local and international contemporary art.
Classic façades in Eixample
Hit the heights afterwards by taking the funicular (ironically, Gaudí died after being hit by a tram in 1926) to the top of the Tibidabo mountain and admire the stunning views of the city. Travel further up and you’ll discover the birthplace of Salvador Dalí, with a museum dedicated to him and his crypt below. (The white seaside town of Cadaqués, the artist’s birthplace, is only about two hours from Barcelona and is well worth the trip).
If you want to gawp at Antoni Gaudí, and in this city it’s almost impossible not to, visit the still incomplete cathedral La Sagrada Familia. Once denounced as garish and monstrous, it’s now the most-visited attraction in the city, with Gaudí’s Park Güell and the FC Barcelona Museum not far behind; the structure began construction in 1882 and its completion is aimed for 2026 via private donations. Gaudí’s Casa Milà, the last private residence he designed was built between 1906 and 1912, is also a must-see. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a category that pops up all over Barcelona.
La Rambla (or Las Ramblas, as the locals call it) is Barcelona’s most famous street, and at 1.2 kilometres has Port Vell at its southern tip and Plaça de Catalunya at its north. It’s home to mime artists and street performers; for first-time visitors, it’s tempting to grab a seat and a jug of sangria, and simply absorb the sights and sounds. Sample from the La Rambla drinking fountain, too; folklore says that if you sip from it, you’ll fall in love with Barcelona and always return to the city.
Greengrocer at public market La Boqueria Barcelona
Passeig de Gracià is a stunning historic shopping avenue in central Barcelona, where you can source everything from high-end fashion to boutique novelties in some of the city’s trendiest stores. Artisanal shoppers will love the El Born neighbourhood; it’s the old part of town, bursting with guilty secrets from handmade leather bags and shoes to vintage furniture and accessories of all kinds, making it a dream district for discoveries.
If outlet shopping is your bag, then 40 minutes from Barcelona you’ll find La Roca Village, filled with outlet stores for all the big brands at great prices, from homewares to fashion. Or head to the Encants Vells flea market, an excellent spot for bargains, set in an uber-modern building in an increasingly hip part of the city.
Palo Alto Market is another kind of hipsterville, with its numerous food trucks and pop-up concept spaces, but it only runs on the first weekend of each month. Pre-book online and you’ll be laughing as you skip the queues to discover locally made eyewear, books, bags, furniture, woodwork, jewellery, baseball caps and more.
As you’d expect, Barcelona abounds with hotel options. While it has high-end spots such as the W hotel, the Mandarin Oriental and a recently opened members-only Soho House, for something stylish without breaking the bank, there’s the Casa Camper boutique hotel near Las Ramblas and the MACBA art gallery. Each room has a separate lounge and there’s a free 24-hour buffet. In a neoclassical building dating from 1856, Casa Bonay is in the Eixample district and has a shared terrace with a cool vibe; it’s a great location, inexpensive and fun. And Hotel Brummell in the Poble-sec is a young hotel that’s great for exploring a less-traversed part of the city in a rising, trendy neighbourhood.
Images: ©boluddha (The unique modernist building Casa Amatller; Classic façades in Eixample; Casa Viçens, Antoni Gaudí’s first house in the city)
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